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King Solomon's Sweet Thunder

One of the last great soul singers makes peace with his past

October 10, 2010 5:55 PM ET
King Solomon's Sweet Thunder
Photograph by Peter Yang

Author’s note : My profile of Solomon Burke appeared in the same issue as a wonderful article by David Gates about the creation of Exile on Main Street. I thought this a felicitous juxtaposition. The Rolling Stones were about as pagan as popular music could be, and Solomon Burke was about as gospel as popular music could be, and yet the Stones had covered Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" on their third album. It was one of their best and most audacious covers, and it borrowed the beat from Solomon, who had borrowed it from his church, the House of Prayer for All People, which used the beat to get people to dance down the aisle and throw money in the collection plate.

No matter how far the prodigal sons travel from home, they can never quite leave church. Not in American music, anyway.

Burke wasn't a prodigal son. He was born a preacher, and stayed a preacher all his life. Along the way, he learned the value of a dollar the hard way, but his mission was spreading joy. He could fill up a room with love, whether the room was a sanctuary or a nightclub or his parlor where I interviewed him.

The last time I spoke with Solomon, he called me from a tour of Japan to thank me for the article. He called me his 91st grandchild. It was the nicest compliment I ever got. —
Charles M. Young


KING SOLOMON'S SWEET THUNDER

Solomon Burke has a giant gleaming dome of a head, nicely symmetrical except for a flat spot on the upper left side, as if somebody took a small slice off the fat end of an Easter egg with a razor. “That’s where my mother hit me with the frying pan,” Burke says with a laugh, in the living room of the “parsonage,” as he calls his spacious home overlooking the San Fernando Valley. “I had cleaned it with a Brillo pad, and she didn’t want no Brillo on her frying pan.”

Photos: Remembering Solomon Burke

That happened about the age of 16, which would have put him two years into his career as one of the all-time greats of soul music, and Solomon went upstairs to sleep off his concussion without complaint. Which is still the Solomon Burke way. Now 70, he doesn’t gripe about being confined to a wheelchair, a chronic weight problem and arthritis having gradually wrecked his knees and hips over the past 20 years. And he doesn’t complain that despite having sold 17 million records and being an inspiration to generations – his songs have been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty to Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding – Burke never had that signature hit that turned him into a household name.

When he sings, he sits on a throne, wears a fedora and purple lamé suit and fills the hall with his always positive personality. When he isn’t singing, he puts on a natty three-piece suit and holds forth from his wheelchair, which could more aptly be called a mobile pulpit. Burke speaks with such enthusiasm that you half expect him to flap his arms, fly up to the ceiling and throw lightning bolts of joy at all the earthbound pedestrians below.

Burke preached his first sermon at age seven, was ordained as a minister at 12 and was named a bishop at 21. Delivering a message that is about 99 percent inspiration and one percent doctrine, he continues to hurl words into the stratosphere to this day in his own denomination, the House of Prayer for All People and World Wide Center for Life and Truth. He presides over it as archbishop here in Los Angeles. “I don’t believe in organized religion,” he says. “I believe in free religion, because I can’t find anywhere in the gospels where it says that I should have a church that’s organized. It doesn’t say I have to preach on Sunday. Every day I’m on the phone ministering to people. I’ve had so many people say to me, ‘What should I believe in?’ I tell ’em, ‘Just believe in what’s real and makes you feel good. Whatever moves you, go there.’”

Fifteen great, career-spanning Solomon Burke songs

Another thing that moves him is making sure his friends go forth and multiply. “You see that whammy stick over there?” He points to an African totem in the corner. “You go rub it. Go back to your girlfriend. She’ll have a baby. You laugh, but a lot of people have witnessed that stick. I can call them up right now and let you hear their children.”

The man’s personal expertise in multiplying is beyond dispute. At any moment, one or more of his 21 children (by four different women, though he prefers not to discuss that aspect of his life), 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren might walk through the front door and give him a big hug. They appear to be a gracious bunch, raised to show respect, enunciate according to the Book and not swear. And just in case they forget, there’s a sign over the doorbell telling them not to swear.

Burke’s limited mobility hasn’t slowed him down any. He’s trying to get the Sons and Daughters of Solomon Burke University of Higher Education off the ground in South Central Los Angeles. He’s always got two or three album projects going, including his latest release, Nothing’s Impossible, which can be described as Burke’s Al Green album, since it was produced by the late Willie Mitchell, who helped create Green’s revolutionary Seventies records. It’s the sort of album you’ll want after reading the news and concluding that the human race won’t make it through the next decade – then you hear Burke’s resonant baritone backed by Mitchell’s gorgeous arrangements and figure, “If Solomon Burke can sound like that, we’re not a complete waste as a species.”

Burke is also never far from another tour. He’s still adored by fans of classic soul all the way up to the two popes he’s sung for. Not bad for a guy who could barely feed all those children, as soul music gave way in the Seventies and his career tanked.

“This is the year of the dream, the time when things change in bigger ways and better ways and we move much faster than we moved 10 years ago,” Burke sermonizes. “You get on the journey that says you’re going to be 70 this year. This is the time to do the things you promised to do. Do the things you’re supposed to do in the time that the Lord has allowed you to continue to be here. And, gosh, when I look back on my life, as Nat ‘King’ Cole sings, I see all my friends who already made another journey, so it’s time to do all the things I can. I’m so blessed with all my family. What a beautiful moment to make this decade a foundation to do the best things that I can.”

Video: Classic Performances by Solomon Burke

Born March 21st, 1940, Solomon Burke didn’t know his biological father. His stepfather, Vincent Burke, was a black Jew who wore a yarmulke and worked as a carpenter and chicken-plucker in a kosher butcher shop. “He was a treasure,” says Solomon. “He loved me as his own, taught me that God didn’t put no ‘step’ in ‘child.’ God loves us all equally.”

Then there was his mom, Josephine. “She had a strong temper. I was the oldest, so I took a lot of yak and didn’t dare talk back. In those days, if you did something wrong, getting a beating was normal. Not a spanking. A beating. When she decided to beat me, I’d pray to God that she would forget. ’Cause she didn’t beat you when you were ready for it. She beat you when she was ready for it. She let you think about it for days, really opened up your brain so you knew why you were being attacked.”

This provided a certain incentive for spending a lot of time at his grandmother’s house. “Yessssssss!!! I used to run out the back door and jump over the fence,” Burke recalls. “My grandmother lived about five houses down, and it was a safe haven. So I’d go there and pray that my mother would forget to beat me while I was there. I knew I was in God’s hands.”

A photograph of his grandmother, Eleanor Moore, sits on the mantle in Burke’s living room, overseeing her myriad descendants, all of whom resemble her.

“She was a very powerful spiritual healer,” says Burke. “The gift she had was almost unthinkable. My grandmother could sit down with you and tell you your mother’s name, your grandfather’s name, where they were born. This, all before computers. She could tell you whatever you wanted to know. She taught me that God would never fail me.”

Eleanor Moore’s powers were so renowned that folks made pilgrimages to see her. Her home in Philadelphia was a House of Prayer for All People, upstairs her living quarters and downstairs the sanctuary.

“Every day they had a service, and the music never stopped,” Burke says. “There was always a band with two or three trombones, tubas, tambourines, cymbals, guitars, pianos. When I speak of the music, I get choked up. It was a message to God, something you feel down to your bones and your soul and your heart.”


When his grandmother died in 1954 at the age of 54, Burke was overcome with grief. “I was so depressed that I didn’t know what to do except go to church,” he remembers. “I ended up at this place that was having a singing contest. I was sitting there crying, and someone asked, ‘Would you like to sing a song?’ They gave me a guitar, and as I was tuning it to open G, God came to me, and I began singing. The next thing I know, everyone is singing, the congregation, the choir, everyone. And this woman is grabbing me, going, ‘You’re mine, all mine. Oh, baby, baby.’ She had this fur shawl made out of about 15 little foxes or minks. She’s hugging me, and all I could see were these little animal faces.”

The woman turned out to be the wife of a prominent black DJ, Kae Williams, who became Burke’s manager, and the next day Burke took the train to New York for a studio session with Apollo Records. By the time of his grandmother’s memorial service on Christmas Eve, he had his first hit, “Christmas Presents From Heaven.”

“It was the beginning of the life that my grandmother predicted for me,” says Burke. “I could feel her spirit moving. She predicted my career, the size of my family, the people I would meet, how I’d travel. She told me so often that I thought I would have to be Superman to do it all.”

But the life his grandmother foresaw proved to be anything but smooth. For about a year he was making what seemed to be a huge amount of money for a teenager, maybe $65 for concerts around Philadelphia and New York. Then one night after a show, a promoter happened to pay Burke directly for his performance. He got many hundreds of dollars, and quickly confronted his manager, Williams, about the unfair division of money. According to Burke, Williams dropped him on the spot and managed to get his songs banned from radio. At 16, he was without money, career and, suddenly, a home. “My mother was so angry. She threw me out of the house. My dad stood by me, would meet me down the street and give me $10. But that’s where I lived for a year or two. In abandoned cars. There was no place I could turn. I was shamed. I was a bum.”

One night, someone contemptuously threw a quarter into the street for Burke outside of a bar. He went to pick it up and recalls distinctly hearing a disembodied voice say, “If you pick up that quarter, you’ll be doing that for the rest of your life.” He stood up – and got hit by a car driven by the wife of a dentist who took him home and nursed him back to health. He ended up marrying her niece Delores and got over the shame of his wrecked singing career, taking a job as an apprentice mortician at his uncle’s funeral home. “I loved the work,” says Burke. “At a moment when there is no hope for a family, a mortician can give them hope. My daughter Victoria is in the funeral business now, and she’s brilliant at it.”

Burke did everything from embalming to comforting the bereaved, and his family started to grow. By 1961, he had “three kids on the outside, and about four at home.” When a local manager offered him a Lincoln Continental if he’d resume his singing career, it seemed a good way to make money. Soon he was signed to Atlantic Records, which was looking for church-trained singers who had the chops to cross over.


Burke fit the formula almost too well. He could sing anything, rough or smooth, angry or loving, soul or country-western. The albums had a tempestuous quality, reflecting his relationship with Delores (“Get Out of My Life Woman”), with whom he had 11 children as the two constantly fought and made up. On one song he could croon like Sam Cooke, on another shout like Otis Redding. His hit “Down in the Valley” crossed over so far that he got booked accidentally at a Ku Klux Klan rally. “My drummer was saying to me, ‘Will we ever get out of here alive?’ ” Burke once recalled. “I said, ‘Just keep playing until they say we’re done.’ I think we played ‘Down in the Valley’ for 45 minutes.”

He became famous for his rollicking, cathartic shows where he would play on the “King Solomon” theme, dressing in a purple robe and gold crown, hiding a midget under the robe. He was also notorious for his schemes to make more money. He would sing a show at the Apollo Theater in New York and then set up a stand outside to sell “Solomon’s Magic Popcorn” to his fans. On bus tours in the segregated South, he would tote a coffin-size ice chest full of sandwiches. “I had a busload of hungry musicians, and it was hundreds of miles between restaurants that would serve us,” he says. “So I’d just sit in back, whipping up the mustard and mayonnaise and bologna. They all had to buy from me eventually.”

“Yeah, I had one of his meals,” says Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave. “He used to cook on a hot plate in his hotel room after a show when the restaurants were closed. And let me tell you, he didn’t give you that much. He gave me one pork chop, one scoop of macaroni and cheese, and one spoonful of gravy. I said, ‘Is that it?’ And he’d say, ‘That’s it, brother. I’m doing you a favor, so take it or leave it.’ But there will never be another Solomon Burke. When I first saw him, I couldn’t believe that one man could have a voice that big. He could rock a house. He was that good.”

Yet Burke never quite went over the top in the manner of Ray Charles with the big crossover song. He had one hit with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” which was covered by the Rolling Stones and Pickett, among many others. The track is mostly hypnotic beat and bass line under a sermon by Burke, but its authorship was credited to Burke and Atlantic executives Jerry Wexler and Bert Berns; this still annoys Burke, and for decades he has been demanding royalties as sole writer. In reality, Burke’s chance to be the Next Big Thing was over by the late Sixties. When revolution was in the news, he was preaching eternal verities like love and understanding. When kids were marching against Vietnam, he was touring Army bases.

In 1968, Burke made his last record for Atlantic and entered a long stretch of laboring in obscurity. He could barely pay the bills with club gigs through the Seventies. Then in 1980 he took some of his children to see The Blues Brothers. Viewing old friends from the R&B circuit up there on the screen, he felt demoralized, and then he heard “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and he says he was stunned to see it attributed to Wilson Pickett. Burke called Atlantic the next day and threatened to get an injunction to shut down the movie. “They sent me an advance for $20,000 within 24 hours,” says Burke. “Jerry Wexler got on the phone and said, ‘I thought you were dead! This is wonderful!’ ”

In the aftermath of embarrassing publicity about musicians who had no money to show for their careers, Atlantic Records executives Ahmet Ertegun and Wexler started the Rhythm & Blues Foundation to address some of the problems of older R&B acts. “A lot of black artists died broke, with no money for funerals,” Burke says. “There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have got buried if not for the R&B Foundation. And if it wasn’t for Ahmet, I wouldn’t be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So don’t say I’m angry. I was very sad when Jerry died. I learned to love him and his jokes. I even got him to accept Christ as his savior.

“Still, me being me, there were times I was angry about money,” he admits. “I remember one of my sons saying that he’d read that I was the 111th-richest black man in America. I said, ‘If that’s true, you better find the 112th-richest black man and give him five bucks, ’cause he’s in trouble.’ ”

In the 1980s, Burke began an extended third act that is one of the most remarkable comebacks in music. He has recorded 18 albums in the past three decades, from soul to country to blues to rock. And in 2003, he won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, for Don’t Give Up on Me.

“I’ve learned to forgive Jerry,” he says. “I’m also waiting for my check. But I believe that I am blessed, because I’m alive and they are now estates. I want my grandchildren to have that money that is owed, and in the end the righteous shall win.”

In a cavernous, brightly lit sanctuary, a visiting pastor delivers a 90-minute sermon at the House of Prayer for All People in South Central L.A., mostly exhortations on “obedience is better than sacrifice.” In other words, if you obey God’s law in the first place, you’re not going to have any iniquities to atone for later.

“You were not born to outthink God!” the preacher thunders. “You were not even born to think! You were born to obey!”

The effect is completely hypnotic, even if you don’t agree with the guy, and Burke doesn’t agree with the guy. He grimaces and points at my notebook and whispers, “Put that away. The only commandment Jesus ever gave was ‘Love ye, one another.’ ” The content of the sermon, though, is quite secondary to the rhythmic oratory, and the band in the front of the sanctuary adds more and more punctuation as the preacher builds to a grand, fist-waving climax. The congregation is mostly standing and swaying and testifying in random outbursts to the presence of the Holy Spirit. The band has about 10 people on percussion, plus tubas, guitars, bass and various horns. Taking over completely from the sermon, three trombonists go to different corners of the sanctuary and trade dazzling solos for about 20 minutes – it’s a window in time back to the birth of everything that’s good in American music. The rhythm section gradually morphs the music into an irresistible dance beat, and folks groove down the aisle to the collection plate, just the way it’s been done since Solomon Burke’s grandmother was a little girl.

“This was all just a dream when I was a little boy – my grandmother’s dream,” says Burke in his wheelchair in the parking lot afterward. “This is my grandmother’s church. Without a vision, the people perish. With a vision, the people flourish. I have joy that is unspeakable. I sing because I’m happy. I may have moved a lot, I may have had cars repossessed. But I always believed that God would help me take care of my family, and he has.”

That beat during the collection? That was “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” wasn’t it?

“Absolutely right. Yeah. That’s something you feel anytime you go into the House of Prayer. You feel that, you know where Solomon Burke came from. Those are drums and tubas and trombones he knows about, because he was born in his grandmother’s house. How could Jerry Wexler have written that? It’s the rhythm in my soul. And now . . .” he gestures to a little group of his grandchildren, “. . . who wants ice cream?”

This story is from the May 27, 2010, issue of Rolling Stone. To read the rest of the issue, you must subscribe to All Access. Already a subscriber? Continue on to The Archives. Not a member and want to learn more? Go to our All Access benefits page.

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